When Religious Activism was Praised
The civil rights movement of the 1960s was influenced by those who brought morality to bear on issues related to race and equality. “For the first time in history, a single Protestant‑Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Jewish testimony was presented to Congress in support of legislation. Congress became aware that the religious community was aroused in a startlingly way. The participation of the religious groups in the March on Washington was another bit of evidence. Over 40,000 white church people participated in the March.” With just a few changes, this description of the 1964 March on Washington could easily describe the activities of the often vilified “religious right” and their efforts to influence legislation.
The similarities are not lost on Stephen L. Carter, Professor of Law at Yale University and one of the nation’s leading experts on constitutional law:
Religious organizations were among the strongest supporters of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which outlawed discrimination in employment and public accommodations. They testified in support of it. They made public appeals for it. And, once again, only the segregation[ist]s complained. Senator Richard Russell of Georgia charged that those who made religious arguments in favor of the legislation did not understand “the proper place of religious leaders in our national life,” adding that the religions should not “make a moral question of a political issue.” Indeed, there is little about the civil rights movement, other than the vital distinction in the ends that it sought, that makes it very different from the right‑wing religious movements of the present day.
Civil rights legislation was passed in the early 1960s because the “moral question” was pressed by religious leaders. “When it was finally passed, friend and foe alike credited the passage of the bill to the persistent power of the church.” Hubert H. Humphrey, the leader of the struggle in the Senate for passage, along with other veteran fighters for civil rights legislation, “insisted that the churches’ efforts had made the difference which had been lacking in other struggles for such bills.”
Culture 101: Christ is King Over All
Culture 101 is a much-needed primer on how to live out the Christian worldview. Jesus said to ‘do business’ until He returns, and that means living and working in the world. Christians are sometimes given the idea that only ‘spiritual’ pursuits are worthy of the true Christian, but this is a misguided view. The truly spiritual Christian will have great impact in all areas of life, including business, entertainment, and art.
The opponents of civil rights legislation in 1964 sound like the hysterical and irrational opponents of today’s Christian activists. Senator Russell maintained that the legislation had passed because “those damn preachers had got the idea it was a moral issue.”
Those who have benefitted from the legal and legislative moral crusades of the anti‑segregationist movement—which claimed that civil rights was a moral issue—are now using the segregationist language of the 1960s—social issues are not moral issues—to demonize Christian involvement in social issues. To justify these bigoted attacks, a blind eye has been turned toward the historical record. There would have been no civil rights movement without the action of pastors and their congregations to force a certain moral standard on the society at large.
The leaders of the civil rights movement spoke openly of the commands of God as a crucial basis for their public activism. They made no effort to disguise their true intention: to impose their religious morality on others, on the dissenters who would rather segregate their hotels or lunch counters, or on those who did not accept a crucial epistemological premise of the movement—that black people are human beings. When King was challenged on just that point, he answered that “the law could not make people love their neighbors, but it could stop their lynching them.”
Of course, the law has its limits. Before religion’s relationship with politics can be discussed, a job description of civil government must first be developed. The limits of jurisdictional action must be determined when we talk about the legislation of morality. But no matter what those limits are, there is no possible way to exclude religious precepts from civil government.
No Tolerance Here!
Notice that these early proponents of civil rights did not mention “tolerance” and “pluralism.” Diverse views of racial relationships and modified segregationist legislation were not tolerated by those proposing civil rights legislation. The intolerance of this moral crusade was at times heavy-handed and intrusionary. Some say it violated the wall separating church and state. “In February of 1956, in the midst of one of the most turbulent periods of the civil rights movement, Joseph Rummel, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of New Orleans, issued a pastoral letter condemning racial segregation as a sin.” Rummel threatened to excommunicate Catholic legislators who supported pro-segregation legislation. The response was predictable. White segregationist legislators considered the letter to be a violation of constitutional principles related to church-state separation. “Racial segregation, they argued, was not ‘a matter of revealed religion’ and therefore was `outside the church province.’. . . Thus, the rhetoric of the 1950s was just like the rhetoric of the 1990s, except that in 1956, the liberals cheered and the conservatives got mad.”
A Memory Lapse
The efforts of today’s Christians on the right of the political spectrum are similar to those of black Christians of another era. While blacks fought legislative and constitutional battles for themselves, Christians today have chosen the arena of politics to fight for the unborn and against homosexual marriages. Just as “black people are human beings,” Christians believe that unborn babies, both black and white, are human beings. And while Christians know that the law cannot make people love their neighbors, it can stop their killing them before they are born. How is this view intolerant? Was America wholly an intolerant and bigoted nation before 1973 when the infamous Roe v. Wade abortion decision came down from the Supreme Court?
Susan Estrich, former campaign manager for presidential candidate Michael Dukakis, described Christian activists as “extremists.” Are blacks and Jews—a majority of whom support Democratic candidates—extremists when they apply their brand of morality to legislative issues? Estrich blamed anti‑homosexual violence on the “politics of hate” which she believes flows from the fanatical religious right. She claims that opposition to homosexual behavior “infects the air” with “poison.” Christians see homosexual behavior to be the issue. Sexual behavior cannot be compared to the struggle of blacks to secure full civil rights. General Colin Powell, who is black, sees no relationship between homosexual rights and civil rights:
Skin color is a benign, nonbehavioral characteristic. Sexual orientation is perhaps the most profound of human behavioral characteristics. Comparison of the two is a convenient but invalid argument.
Powell has since changed his position. But this change does nothing to change the truth of his earlier comment.
The Bible has always been used to combat social injustice. Slavery was denounced as a violation of the moral and civil laws of God outlined in the Bible. For this application of religious principles the liberal establishment was in full agreement.
Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths
Christianity's failure to show itself practical in the past 150 years has guaranteed the success of secularism and militant Islam, both of which are doing incalculable harm at home and abroad. The rejection of any type of ‘this-worldly’ application of the Bible has resulted in the proliferation of man-centered worldviews that have steadily drained the life out of our world and left behind a spiritual vacuum.
Robert W. Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches (New York: Association Press, 1965), 106. Stephen L. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion (New York: Basic Books, 1993), 228. Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches, 108. Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches, 108. Quoted in Spike, The Freedom Revolution and the Churches, 108. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 229. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 63. Carter, The Culture of Disbelief, 63–64. General Colin Powell, letter to Rep. Patricia Shroeder (May 8, 1992). Cited in John W. Whitehead, Religious Apartheid: The Separation of Religion from American Public Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994), 126. George Bourne, The Book and Slavery Irreconcilable (Philadelphia, PA: J.M. Sanderson, 1816).